Review: David Simon speaks in Belfast
1 June 2009
David Simon, creator and writer of The Wire, was in Belfast on Sunday to speak at the Guardian Hay festival. This was one of a number of Hay events to be hosted by other towns and cities. Despite relatively low-key publicity it drew an audience of seven hundred people to the Ulster Hall.
The initial introduction came from local novelist Glenn Patterson. He thanked the Hay Festival and a number of sponsors. He also mentioned that earlier that afternoon at bookseller who had been helping with a signing had been robbed. Given that the main subject of Simon’s work is the criminality that afflicts major cities this had a certain irony. Yet it also served to highlight, if only in a small way, the problems that are common to cities across the world. Glenn then handed onto to Belfast playwright and scriptwriter Tim Loane who gave a more formal introduction to David Simon. The talk itself took the format of an onstage conversation between Loane and Simon before being opened up to questions from the audience.
Loane started by asking about the success of The Wire in the US and more recently abroad. In reply David Simon said that he had no idea how successful the show would become, and initially had wondered if viewers would even understand it. However, it was a slow success that had been built up largely through word of mouth. A secondary success for Simon was the republication of the books that had acted as the source material for the series. He joked he hadn’t been run out of Baltimore as a result if the series, and claimed that apart from some hostility from officialdom most people accepted it as an accurate depiction of the city. For him The Wire was the story of the “two Americas” that exist side by side.
Simon then went on to talk about his own connection to the city of Baltimore. He revealed that he was not born in the city but moved there in his early twenties to study at the University of Baltimore. While at university he was hired as a campus journalist by the Baltimore Sun. What struck him most about Baltimore as a newcomer was the level of violence and decay in the city - unlike anything he had experienced before. After university he was hired full time by the Sun to work as a crime correspondent. This is what led to him getting to shadow a homicide squad for a year, out of which came his first book – Homicide Life on the Street. The detectives had been opposed to his presence but were overruled by the Police Commissioner. He said that it was his own persistence, the boredom of police work, and the detectives just getting used to having him around that got him through a year of being embedded with the police. It also helped that the detectives believed that he wouldn’t actually publish a book at the end of it. Simon admitted that he hardly believed it himself and was daunted by the task of turning dozens of notebooks into a book, especially as he had never written one before. The start of process involved assessing what was important to the narrative. He was also sensitive to the reaction of the detectives he had been shadowing - most of them disliked some elements of the book. Simon said he deliberately revealed portions of the book to the relevant characters to get a reaction. This process lead to him making revisions and producing what he thought was a better book.
The conversation then moved onto his second book – The Corner – that dealt with the other side of crime. This focused the drugs corners, described by Simon as operating like drive thru windows, and the dealers and addicts that inhabit them. It involved him and his writing partner Ed Burns hanging out at the same drugs corner for weeks on end, talking to people and observing the goings on. An initial problem for them was that some of the dealers on the corner recognised Ed Burns as a former police detective, but once it was clear they weren’t police most of the dealers were happy to co-operate. After a while the writers just blended into the scenery. It was put to Simon that there was an element of voyeurism about this. He admitted that there was, but for him journalism is exploitive and involves journalists “selling people out” to some degree. Despite all this he still views journalism as essential to the functioning of society. What good journalists are committed to is capturing the nuances of that society. Simon was then asked about the difficulty of remaining objective in the role of observer. He said that the way to remain objective was to be truthful to the people that you were observing, to make it clear that you are not a cop or informant, even though you see crimes being committed. Simon said that during his time on the corner he witnessed people in distress and pain. While he did make interventions, talking to some people and trying to nudge them in a different direction, he believes that this had no affect, as there were stronger forces at work. On a personal level he did experience moments of connection and affirmation. This was important because it cut against the ideology of the “drugs war” which demonised a whole of group people and made drug users and dealers less than human.
Simon went on to talk about his television work. He said that he had not intended to get into writing for television but a number of factors had pushed him in that direction. One of these was the decay he witnessed within the newspaper industry brought about by the increasing concentration of ownership. Newspapers became increasingly generic as content was cut back in the pursuit of higher profits. Generating advertising revenue rather than expanding circulation become the primary objective of newspapers. This was the background to Simon leaving the Baltimore Sun in 1995. It was at this time that he began the television work, (his first book was adapted the NBC series – Homicide Life on the Street), that would lead to The Wire.
Simon said he wanted to create stories that were meaningful beyond their drama and subject. His inspirations were the great American novels, such as Mody Dick, All the Kings Man and Huck Finn, which examined subjects such as race and class though not overtly so. Simon admitted that he was initially dismissive of television, believing it to be a “literalist medium” that was commercially driven. However, when HBO commissioned The Corner as a mini series he got the chance to tell a story about race, class and poverty in the US. It was this story of the two Americans that would serve as the basis for The Wire.
At this point the talk was opened up to questions from the audience. First up was the question of why the few morally motivated characters in The Wire, such as Frank and Omar, had to be killed off. In reply Simon cited the influence of the Greek plays upon his work and the dramatic concept of there being a dynamic between gods and mortals. It is the sense of the characters being fated that creates the tragedy. Another questioner asked Simon what he was working on now. He replied that he was working a new series for HBO called Treme, which was set in New Orleans and had as its subject the struggle of the city to recover in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He said it was not a crime story, but instead would focus on the city’s musicians. A direct parallel was being made with the aftermath of the hurricane in New Orleans and the financial crisis that had hit the whole of the US. For Simon it was impossible to do any work in the current climate that wasn’t political. On the subject of politics, he was asked hat he thought of Obama. Simon replied that at best things wouldn’t get any worse under Obama. He admitted that during the election campaign he got caught up in the enthusiasm projected onto Obama, but did not really subscribe to the great man view of history. He saw the obstacles to change in the US as systemic.
Another questioner asked him whether the themes covered by The Wire were in his vision for the show from the start. Simon said that were - that he had always intended to cover the broad themes of the war on drugs, the death of work and attempts at reform. He said that the final season covered the role of the media to show the subjects in the show are presented to the world. Simon was asked for his views on drugs decriminalisation. He favoured decimalisation and drug abuse being treated primaries as a medical problem. For him the war on drugs was a complete failure – it had destroyed inner cites and changed the nature of policing. Drug enforcement was not real police work and had resulted in the neglect of violent crimes. The most damning measure of failure was the fact that drugs were now more prevalent than ever. Simon said that alongside decimalisation there was also a need to build up the economy in inner cites areas and provide opportunities for people. Despite his support for decimalisation he conceded that a possible negative consequence was that some people would be at more risk of drug addiction. Simon concluded by saying how amazed he was that The Wire had been picked up by city dwellers across the world. He said that this seemed to be particularly strong in port cities such as Belfast, which could more readily identify with Baltimore. He was also pleased that The Wire had encouraged people to read the books that had provided the source material for the series.
Although lasting just over an hour the talk by David Simon was very interesting. It gave a useful insight into the motivation and vision of the creator of the most powerful dramatic depiction of contemporary US society. While his political views might not be as advanced as we hope, it is clear from this and other interviews, as well as from The Wire itself, that Simon’s sympathies lie with the working class and oppressed, and his anger directed at the institutions that weight upon them. Simon isn’t as socialist, and The Wire isn’t a socialist critique of capitalist society, but they are representative of a critical cultural current that is trying to engage with an audience and make them think. This can only be a welcome development.